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Posts Tagged ‘Francesca Zambello’

2011. The Magic. The Mishaps. The Future.

In Baroque, Beethoven, Classical Music, Gustav Mahler, Handel, JS Bach, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner on December 24, 2011 at 8:24 am

2011. The year that I started this blog to recount my own opinions about performances that I attended and CDs that I listened to.

No one’s opinion – particularly mine – is either right not perfect. Listening to music is an intensely, intensely personal experience. I can sit next to a friend and at the end of performance walk away with a completely reaction and different point of view. And on some occasions following what can be heated discussion my opinion has changed. And I can leave performances I attend alone with one perception and after some thought, or a flash of ‘something’, I have changed my mind. Sometimes completely.

So what I have selected below are the ten events or recordings that have struck me as the most significant performances I have heard in 2011. And five that were disappointing against the original expectation.

Top of a list of ten is a recording – or set of recordings – that even now I return to on a daily basis. Step forward Ricardo Chailly, the GewandhausOrchester Leipzig and their well near perfect performances of Beethoven’s symphonies and overtures. At tempi faster than usually expected, these are lithe, muscular renditions of these great works. But at no point do either Chailly or the GewandhausOrchester sacrifice speed for precision and an acute attention to detail. And as I have said before, the timpanist is a revelation. And of all the symphonies, the ‘Eroica’ is my personal favourite and I was fortunate enough to see them perform this symphony during their visit to London. And in 2012 I plan to visit Leipzig and see them on their home turf.

Needless to say, you haven’t purchased this set already then I can’t recommend it enough.

Next to Munich for Richard Jones’ production of Lohengrin in July. I had originally hoped to see both Adrienne Pieczonka and Waltraud Meier in the two female roles, and while Emily Magee more than respectably replaced Ms Pieczonka as Elsa, it was very much Meier’s evening. Her Ortrud was a masterful character study of pure malevolence. As I remarked at the time, there was something almost Shakespearean in the way that Jones revealed the character not only of Ortrud but of her husband, Telramund played magnificently by Evgeny Nikitin. Indeed even when she was not singing, Ms Meier held the complete attention of the audience. Jones direction was masterful not only in its attention to detail – there were some incredibly thought-provoking moments – but also in the way he also captured the grand sweep of emotion as well. The ending – not the traditional one of redemption – is not one I will forget in a hurry.

Another unforgettable evening of Wagner – at the other end of the spectrum – was Opera North’s semi-staged production of Das Rheingold at the Lowry Theatre on Salford Quays. From the moment Richard Farnes – in a moment of simple yet effective theatrical magic – lifted his baton and raised the waves of the Rhine itself, it was a near perfect performance. The singers were without a single weakness and if I am to salute just a few then without doubt they are the Fricka of Yvonne Howard, Lee Bisset’s Freia, the Rhinemaidens one and all – Jeni Bern, Jennifer Johnston and Sarah Castle – and the brilliant Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. And special mention of Peter Mumford and his exceptionally elegant and effective lighting. This was a performance of Das Rheingold that outshone many I have seen by some of the so-called ‘major’ opera companies and some of that credit is due to the artistic consultancy of Dame Anne Evans. I have a ticket to their production of Die Walküre next year and do not doubt that it will be of the same incredible high standard.

Staying with The Ring, next is Hamburg Opera’s production of Die Walküre (April). General Manager and conductor Simone Young drew incredibly rich and opulent music making from both the orchestra and the singers. Without a doubt this was music that Young both loved deeply and knew inside out. It reminded me in so many ways of Reginald Goodall’s approach to Wagner – majestic, informed and intuitive and with a real attention to the orchestral detail and sensitive to the singers. And the case was incredibly strong. Angela Denoke and Katarina Dalayman were Sieglinde and Brunnhilde respectively but the real revelation for me that evening was Lilli Paasikivi as Fricka. For the first time her confrontation with Wotan in the Second Act became a central focus of the unfolding drama as never before in productions I had seen. Even the production and direction – having seen Gotterdammerung the previous year – was strong. As I said at the time, each action was investing in meaning and the set – while incredibly simply – was completely integrated in the narrative. The Hamburg Opera will perform their complete Ring Cycle in 2012 and I am hoping that I can get the time to see it.

Unexpectedly, Mahler appears twice in my lists of performances. The first is a memorable performance of his Resurrection Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic under their new Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena. The BBC Philharmonic sounds exceptional – European – at the moment, which is due to their stewardship under Noseda and this is set to continue under Mena. His approach to Mahler’s Second Symphony was one of architectural clarity with an almost Latin-lilt. It’s a shame that it hasn’t be caught for future listening on a CD.

Renée Fleming’s recent performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach crowned a great year of performances for me. As with their 1999 recording, the pair took a valedictory approach with tempi that revelled in the lush sound world created by Strauss. Eschenbach – bar a few small glitches – drew some glorious playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra but Fleming dominated with an intensely personal and intelligent performance, her warm burnished tone, with a new resonance to her bottom notes, making for a memorable evening.

Kasper Holten soon arrives at Covent Garden and I was fortunate to catch his final production at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an incredibly difficult listen and – with its dense storyline – complicated to direct effectively. However Holten, with his manga-noir set managed to negotiate the audience clearly through the story as well as effectively highlight the underlying psychology woven in. On the whole the singers were incredibly strong and Michael Schønwandt and the orchestra were marvellous in the pit. I think that Holten will be a refreshing and inspiring creative change for Covent Garden.

Il Complesso Barocco, led by Alan Curtis and a cast including the incredible Joyce DiDonato, Karina Gauvin and Marie Nicole Lemieux brought a musically stunning concert performance of Ariodante to London in May. Curtis’ troupe recording all of Handel’s opera – Giulio Cesare is next in 2012 – and this performance marked the release of Ariodante on CD. Needless to say while the charismatic and accomplished Ms DiDonato stole the show it was an incredible night. Each and every soloist sparked off each other to create some brilliant music making and the discovery – for me – of Sabina Puértolas. Definitely someone to watch.

Strauss Vier Letzte Lieder are placed twice in my top ten of 2011. This time a recording both by an unexpected soprano and which was an unexpected pleasure. Martina Arroyo – more commonly associated with Verdian roles recorded the songs with Gunter Wand. Her incredibly rich voice was well suited to Strauss and she more than managed the soaring vocal line and was sensitively supported by Wand.

And finally this year wouldn’t have been complete without regular delving into the cantatas of JS Bach. While it is better to listen to them in their entirety, the beauty of Gardiner’s exemplary and recordings with the Monteverdi players and singers and the wonder of shuffle means that many a happy hour has been spent waiting to see what random and revelatory track my iPod will play next. Wonderful.

But of course not all performances and recordings were as memorable. Or were memorable for the wrong reasons.

So here are my top five ‘turkeys’ of 2011. In brief.

Top of the list is the Marrinsky Opera production of Die Frau ohne Schatten as part of the Edinburgh Festival. Jonathan Kent’s production had some moments of intelligence but the whole thing was completely destroyed by what can only be described – bar Nikolai Putilin’s Barak – as very poor singing indeed. And Valery Gergiev’s conducting was nothing short of disappointing. I am still waiting for Mr Gergiev to send me a refund.

Next Maazel’s performance of Mahler’s Eighth symphony, which drew his cycle of the symphonies to an end. His meandering approach made for a lacklustre evening that couldn’t even be salvaged by a strong line up of singers. Indeed, with Maazel intent it seemed on working again the soloists, only Sarah Connolly acquitted herself with any success.

My final three choices all hail from my trips this year to the US – to New York and San Francisco. First, a shoddy performance of Il Trovatore at the Met where it seemed that Peter Gelb had made the decision to attract an audience with casting that couldn’t deliver for box office receipts. I don’t think I will ever want to risk seeing or hearing Dolora Zajick on stage again.

Next – and perhaps surprisingly – I have selected the San Francisco Ring cycle. It goes without saying that Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde was absolutely magnificent and for her alone it was worth the journey. In the singing stakes she was joined by Ronnita Miller as both Erda and Norn and a promising Siegmund by Brandon Jovanovich. However the remaining singers were generally not up to it and Donald Runnicles was completely uninspiring in the pit, generating mediocre and bland playing from the orchestra. And yet the most frustrating element was Francesca Zambello’s often lazy, ill-thought through direction. Promising to deal with the ‘real issues’ facing the US, instead she produced a sugar-coated production clearly more suited to placating San Francisco’s rich donors than forcing them to confront reality.

And finally, Robert LePage’s Die Walküre. Again this was not about the singing which was on the whole, superlative. While Deborah Voigt might not be the best Brunnhilde, she delivered a great performance as did Terfel, Westbroek and – on the whole – Kaufmann. And special mention to the incredibly human portrayal of Fricka by Stephanie Blythe. Less a goddess bent on revenge than a wife trying to save a marriage. But the staging, I felt, hindered the singers and became the main attraction, adding nothing to the narrative or underlying messages of Wagner’s opus, but rather merely a backdrop for some rather ineffective and distracting special effects.

So what of 2012? Well looking at my bookings so far, or which I have few, it seems to be a year of Tristan und Isolde. I am seeing it twice in Berlin, including a concert performance with Nina Stemme under Janowski as part of his plans to record all of Wagner’s operas. I am also off to the Millennium Centre to see Welsh National Opera’s production as well. Later in the year I have Opera North’s production of Die Walküre to look forward to as well as their new production of Giulio Cesare.

Other plans include hopefully Hamburg Opera’s Ring Cycle, Renée Fleming in Arabella in Paris and a trip to Leipzig for the GewandhausOrchester.

No plans for anything at English National Opera just yet. I was tempted by Der Rosenkavalier but I have seen the production and while I love the opera I don’t think it warrants a return.

And Covent Garden? Not their Ring Cycle. Once was enough. Perhaps Don Giovanni as I haven’t seen a production of it in a while.

And next year I intend to listen to one completely new piece of music at least every fortnight. So suggestions are most welcome.

So a merry Christmas to one and all and here is to an exciting, enjoyable and thought provoking 2012.

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Wagner Finds His Northern Soul

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on September 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Das Rheingold, The Lowry Theatre, September 10 2011

Woglinde – Jeni Bern
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnston
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Wotan – Michael Druiett
Fricka – Yvonne Howard
Freia – Lee Bissett
Loge – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Donner – Derek Welton
Froh – Peter Wedd
Erda – Andrea Baker
Fasolt – Brindley Sherratt
Fafner – Gregory Frank
Mime – Richard Roberts

Artistic Consultant – Dame Anne Evans DBE
Concert Staging – Peter Mumford
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Proof that not every opera performances need staging was more than amply justified by Opera North’s concert performance of Das Rheingold at The Lowry Theatre.

Richard Farnes led an ensemble and orchestra in a performance that – in my opinion – more than rivalled those of any other opera house that I have seen. And in this I include Covent Garden, The Metropolitan and San Francisco. Saturday night was a distinctly “German” performance and almost ‘near perfect’. I am sure that more than some of the naysayers who, when Opera North announced their intention to perform the entire Ring cycle, have been silenced.

And while it may not have been staged in the ‘traditional’ sense, the setting created by Peter Mumford was superb. Of which, more anon.

But first of all to the orchestra and Richard Farnes. From the opening notes it was evident that a great deal of attention had been paid to what was actually written in the score. This might seem like a non sequitur but often – and particularly I think with Das Rheingold which most conductors do not take ‘seriously – more ‘seasoned’ conductors seem to conduct performances of The Ring more with a sense of routine than actual discovery and delight. No so with Richard Farnes and the Opera North Orchestra. Farnes lavished such attention to detail and the orchestra played with such precision and a rich a warm tone – for example, every note was heard as the Rhine swelled and grew in the opening – that the sound was transparent, clean and clear throughout. Notable and exemplary was the brass playing from the very start as was the delicate pointing of the woodwind and never before has the use of anvils sounded so rhythmically alert and not just anvils-for-anvils-sake. Farnes’ obvious love and knowledge of the score also meant that he brought out the chamber music quality in Wagner’s music that is so often missed. Only once did the orchestra rise above one of the singers and inadvertently drown him out. A particular achievement considering this was a concert performance with the orchestra ranged behind the singers.

And in music where it is often unavoidable that there are weak links in the ensemble, there were none in evidence at The Lowry. The Rhinemaidens – so often seen as secondary in importance when casting as was evidenced in Francesca Zambello’s Ring Cycle in San Francisco – were perfectly cast. The greatest challenge in finding the ‘right’ Rhinemaidens is finding three singers who can negotiate the music, immediately project character and, most importantly, meld their voices when singing together, rather than compete. So all laurels must go to the Woglinde of Jeni Bern, the Wellgunde of Jennifer Johnston (Debut with Opera North) and the Flosshilde of Sarah Castle (Debut with Opera North). Three Rhinemaidens I could listen to again and again and again. From their first entrance, through their mockery of Alberich to their final plaintive lament at the end of the opera, here were three singers of great ability and ensemble skill. Despite of a lack of a stage, from their first appearance they created a real sense of the drama unfolding with simple yet effective choreography. Each had a distinct vocal timbre, warm and rich throughout their range – credit particularly to Bern’s well pointed top notes, the rich warmth of Jennifer Castle and Sarah Castle – yet when they sang in ensemble the effect was mesmerising. I look forward to hearing these three sing again in Gotterdammerung as well as in other operas.

The Alberich of Peter Sidhom was impressive. Again it is often to easy to fall into the trap of easy caricature – Alberich as evil, Alberich as bitter even, in some performances, Alberich as buffoon – but Sidhom caught his personality perfectly. His rich deep baritone was even throughout and this was clearly a role that he was accustomed to performing but he gave a real sense of inventing the character afresh for this production. His character transformation from his first appearance through to the end of the opera, leaving the stage as a broken man bent on revenge was utterly compelling. And in particular when I think of previous productions where plastic toy frogs have been used in the Tarnhelm scene, Sidhom’s own acting surpassed any previous attempt to bring this scene to life. Similarly Mime, sung by Richard Roberts, was no cipher. A confident actor, he brought out both pitiful side as well as the humorous side of this harried dwarf, coupled with a clear, rounded voice.

And so to the Gods. First to Donner (Derek Welton) and Froh (Peter Wedd). Once again, Opera North gave clear thought to what are often considered non-important roles. Welton and Wedd were – in comparison to some productions – luxury casting in the roles of Wotan’s brothers-in-law. Welton – another Opera North debut – resonant bass will hopefully one day see him as a Wotan and Wedd’s clarion tenor with its distinct ‘Englishness’ was fresh and unstrained.

Michael Druiett’s Wotan took a moment to warm up but his was a strong performance. While his is not a particularly big voice, he delivered the vocal line with confidence and had an attractive timbre. Not only will it be interesting to see how he develops Wotan in Die Walküre but also to see if he has the heft for that exacting role.

The goddesses were led by the incredibly talented Yvonne Howard, a soprano of great experience Her warm soprano, finely balanced and coupled with her ability for nuance and colouring that is so often missing in today’s singers, created a Fricka of both subtlety and grace – a multi-dimensional wife and sister from the start, rather than the more normally expected ‘single-sided’ goddess. Here was a woman still in love with her husband but more than a little knowledge of his misdemeanours. Never before have I seen such an expression of fear on the face of Fricka when Erda makes her appearance. For Ms Howard the fear was so much born from Mother Earth’s appearance as from the sure knowledge that her husband’s desire to know more would result in infidelity. Hopefully Ms Howard will be cast by Opera North as Fricka for Die Walküre – I look forward to seeing the sparks fly during her Second Act confrontation with Wotan.

I was particularly pleased to be able to see Lee Bissett as Freia. I first saw Ms Bissett perform as a Young Singer at English National Opera and have always considered her as one of the most talented emerging artists. Shame on ENO for not developing her further and I am somewhat surprised to see that this is her debut with this company. Again she brought this small role to life, not only with her strong acting but her wonderful singing, investing each note with real passion. Hers is a voice that is already quite developed in terms of depth and tone, with a great sense of control and beauty of tone. I wonder if perhaps she will be Opera North’s Sieglinde?

Andrea Baker’s Erda completes the trio of excellent goddesses. This is always a tricky role to carry off, appearing ‘cold’ as it were and thrown into the dramatic tension. Again all credit to the stage direction, as I did not notice her arrival until she began to sing, delivering her warning to Wotan with an incredibly controlled and even line, her tone only slightly wavering at the beginning.

A little more characterisation would have been welcomed in the giants of Brindley Sherratt and Gregory Frank but both were superbly sung.

And finally to the absolutely superb Loge of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and as well as another excellent debut, incredible luxury casting. There is always a risk that the character of Loge will be played mainly for laughs and the more Machiavellian aspects of the character are played away. Not so here. From the onset Ablinger-Sperrhacke created a half-god that was so much more clearly focused on his own self-interest than that Wotan and his ilk. His body language, his movements, his delivery of the text and his innate musicality all merged together to create the most convincing character on the stage. Not without reason he received the biggest cheer on the night. His Loge brought to mind the memorable Loge of Philip Langridge in Covent Garden.

And throughout, each and every singer had near perfect diction. When reading the programme it became clear why the ensemble was so strong in terms of their musicality, singing, portrayal and delivery of the text. Dame Anne Evans DBE has acted as Artistic Consultant on the production and will hopefully continue to do so for the whole cycle. What an incredible coup for Opera North to have the support and advice of such an amazing singer and Wagner expert. Her long and successful career – not only in Wagner but in countless other roles – has clearly been brought to bear and again shows with what careful attention and planning Opera North has approached this cycle.

The concert staging by Peter Mumford perfectly supported and highlighted the drama as it unfolded on stage even before he focused the audience’s attention on the three screens. The impressive use of lighting was in evidence from the very beginning. Before Farnes raised his baton to begin, Mumford focused a singled spotlight on the conductor – a simple yet effective lighting effect that had the immediate effect of focusing the audience. Then as the music began to swell from the double basses, he gradually raised the lighting on the music stands themselves, creating a sense that we were really emerging from the depths of the Rhine. The films and animations on the three screens above the orchestra were used effectively – much more effectively in fact than the projections for the San Francisco Ring and probably at a fraction of the price – and even the use of narrative text didn’t distract from the drama on stage. And perhaps the staging highlight of the evening, and a masterstroke – bathing Lee Bisset’s Freia in golden light as the Gods attempted to pay off the giants. A wonderful touch and so much more effective than the piling of sacks – or faux gold – that is often the case in other productions.

Das Rheingold is often the weakest link in any Ring Cycle for whatever reason. However this wasn’t the case for Opera North and the superlative performance they gave not only at the Lowry – but judging from reviews of the performances – across the midlands and North of England. This was an in intelligent, thoughtful and musical performance that stands shoulder to shoulder – if not shoulder above – productions, staged or not, by other major opera houses. Farnes and his ensemble have set an incredibly standard to beat and I have no doubt whatsoever that they will met or perhaps even surpass it in the remaining three operas.

Buy, beg or steal a tickets for Die Walküre in 2012.

Vacant Valery & His Kinder-Egg-Emperor

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on September 3, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Die Frau ohne Schatten (Mariinsky Opera, Edinburgh, Friday 2 September 2011)

The Empress – Elena Nebera
The Emperor – Avgust Amonov
Barak – Nikolai Putilin
The Dyer’s Wife – Ekaterina Popova
The Nurse – Elena Vitman
A Spirit Messenger – Evgeny Ulanov
Barak’s Brothers – Andrei Popov/Andrei Spekhov/Nikolai Kamensky
Voice of the Falcon – Tatiana Kravtsova

Original Director – Jonathan Kent
Revival Director – Lloyd Brown
Design – Paul Brown
Video & Projection Design – Sven Ortel, Nina Dunn
Conductor – Valery Gergiev

An overwhelming sense of disappointment. Not the best ending to a night at the opera – particularly after the excitement of the first night – but it’s the only way to describe how the Mariinsky Opera production of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten left me as I walked away from the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. All the more so following the inspired – if sometimes flawed production – I enjoyed in Copenhagen a few months back.

On paper the billing was promising. Having seen Gergiev conduct many times before – including an extraordinary Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet – and the promise of an intelligent production from Jonathan Kent, the augurs were good. Of course with any Mariinsky production you expect some of the singers to be hit and miss, but nothing can – in my mind – account for last night. The Mariinsky is probably unsurpassed in terms of their Russian repertoire and I’ve only read about their faulty staging of The Ring. But their decision to stage this Strauss opera needs either major improvement or total abandonment.

It’s a shame as the production itself had some interesting features but ultimately they didn’t knit together cohesively, almost ended in farce, and undermined von Hofmannsthal’s original intentions. When I was young I had a book of Russian fairytales – including Baba Yaga and The Frog Princess – illustrated by Ivan Bilibin and it’s clear that Jonathan Kent and Paul Brown were similarly inspired by Russian tales as well as by the chinoiserie movement for the spirit world of the Emperor and Empress with it’s oversized flowers and golden statuesque beasts. However perhaps the fly-eyes on the hapless Falcon would have been better left to Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon. The use of projections – and a general theme of water – implied that this kingdom was underwater. In stark contrast the world of Barak and his wife was as clearly set in modern day – presumably – Russia, with launderette-style washing machines and a suitably grey and crumbling work/home environment.

As I said there were some nice touches. During the first dream sequence in the Dyer’s home, for example, harem handmaidens came out of the washing machines and the use of footage of babies against the wall of the Dyer’s how was effective. On the other hand there was some choreography that was misjudged – in the opening scene the movements of the Emperor’s guardsmen made me think of nothing less than those of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard Of Oz. Perhaps that was the intention.

As in Copenhagen‘s much more effective production, the Mariinsky used projections throughout the operas to effect both scene changes (some of which featured noisy stage hands barking orders at one another) as well as to add to the drama unfolding on the stage. The falcon and flocks of bird featured heavily as did a vocabulary of rolling clouds, waves and water. Apart from a desire to see more variation in the flocks of birds, the projections were generally effectively used – Francesca Zambello take note – and in particular the sunburst reaching down into the water the final scenes was almost – but not quite – breathtaking.

While the setting of the first two acts were traditional almost to the point of predictability, the final act was confused, contrived and ultimately almost farcical. Opening quite literally with the world ‘upside down’ – or indeed underwater although this wasn’t entirely clear – Barak’s car and a tree, both upended, were gradually joined by other ephemera from both the real and spirit world. Against this backdrop the Dyer and his wife wandered aimlessly across an empty set until they eventually disappeared into the background to be replaced by The Empress who took to the stage, amid golden light and glitter and what can only be described as a misshapen plastic ‘egg’. Clearly this was meant to entomb the petrified Emperor, but I don’t think I have ever encountered anything as incongruous, clumsy and so simply badly judged on stage for some time. It reminded me of nothing less than the Kinder Eggs I used to have when I was a child. After it had been subjected to intense heat. No amount of grace could enable any singer to emerge from this deformed Perspex ovoid with any grace and dignity and the moment was only saved by the clever use of lighting to create the Empress’ shadow.

Yet the effect was broken at the end as the back of the stage opened up to enable a crowd of Russians to amble like zombies to face the audience. Clearly they were meant to be Russian as there were men in uniform amongst them – either a clumsy tribute to Gergiev’s protector Putin or a simple reminder of the continued power of Russia’s military state.

It was a relief when the curtain fell.

In terms of the singing, it was almost uniformly bad. Overall not only was their German poor and their diction dire, but the quality of the singing itself left a great deal to be desired. The stand-out performer was Nikolai Putilin’s Barak. His deep and resonant bass, rich and even throughout and coupled with a real sense of musicianship and knowledge of the role, showed little strain even by the end and mostly rose above the clamour Gergiev and the orchestra were making in the pit. Apart from Putilin, the rest of the ensemble struggled both with their roles and against their own limited talents. ‘Next best’ but leagues behind her husband, was the Dyer’s Wife of Ekaterina Popova. While she has a large voice she seemed unable in the first two acts, to control either her intonation or dynamic range. While she fortunately rallied for her short scene at the opening of the Third Act, this is clearly not a role suited to her voice. The same is true of Elena Nebera’s performance as The Empress. Again she has a rich soprano voice but didn’t seem to be in complete control of her own instrument, leading to both intonation problems and an acute inability to sing Strauss’ fluid lines. She also had a troubling habit of stopping for a split second before attempting any note above the stave. Avgust Amonov’s Emperor was poor from the start. Weedy and strained vocally, he cracked from his opening scene and never recovered. Drowned by the orchestra – not completely his own fault – this is not a role he should have in his repertoire and I am equally surprised – or is it horrified? – to see Cavaradossi, Calaf and Siegmund among his other roles. I shudder to think.

In the smaller replies, Evgeny Ulanov was an accomplished Spirit Messenger but Tatiana Kravtsova was simply miscast as The Voice of the Falcon. She failed to annunciate the words, negotiate the vocal line or create any sense of drama. Again she bills herself as a Violetta – not a role I would want to sit through.

But of them all Elena Vitman’s The Nurse was the worse. Over and above the dreadful ham acting – Ms Vitman, there must be more in your acting vocabulary than hand wringing – she simply didn’t have the vocal capabilities for this demanding role which requires an innate sense of musicianship and strong characterisation rather than the vamped up pantomime portrayal she delivered. For a role that is almost excessive in its vocal demands and almost constantly on stage, who at the Mariinsky thought Ms Vitman was a suitable choice? Her voice was ungainly, uncontrolled, out of tune and on more than one occasion when it became too much for her, she resorted to something resembling bad sprechstimme. Appalling.

The various choruses – adult and children alike – were lacklustre and indistinct in their singing and again intonation problems abounded.

So this leaves us with ‘Maestro’ Gergiev and the orchestra. As I said at the beginning I have seen him conduct many times and remember a particularly spectacular Elektra at the Barbican with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet and the LSO. His Die Frau was poor – devoid of the passion and insight for which he is renowned and indeed whenever I looked toward him there was a single look on his face – of vacantcy. There was no sense of finesse in the playing and the orchestra seemed to have one volume – loud – which was coupled with some cloudy brass playing and dodgy intonation from the strings. The opening of the Second Act, where Strauss wrote some particularly ravishing music for solo cello and strings that looks forward to Metamorphosen, was particularly lacklustre and bland and the closing bars of the final act were ragged and messy. It was almost as if Gergiev hadn’t looked at the score since the Mariinsky last toured with it, if in fact he had studied it at all.

One wonders whether Gergiev – already so greedily over-committed for the sole purpose of self-aggrandisement – is a good choice as President of the Festival? Will it mean more mediocre performances from the Mariinsky Opera and other companies that he is associated with? A cultural suffocation of the Festival to appease and satisfy his ego?

Of course, this isn’t the first – and won’t be the last – time that I attend a performance that is disappointing. However, the majority of the time, even the most disappointing productions have redeeming features – a smart director that makes you think, a reasonable cast of singers, an intelligent conductor.

Not on this occasion. Mr Gergiev, can I have a refund please?

An Apple-Pie Ring – High on ‘doh!’, low on ambition. Saved by Stemme.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on June 22, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Wotan – Mark Delavan
Brunnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegmund – Brandon Jovanovich
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris/Ian Storey
Erda – Ronnita Miller
Loge – Stefan Margita

Director – Francesca Zambello
Conductor – Donald Runnicles

It’s not uncommon for directors to reinterpret opera productions through the prism of either contemporary or historical events. This can mean everything from the anonymous war-torn landscape and bombed-out buildings to specific references and, or, setting their productions in specific historical periods – actual to the original composer’s wishes, or not.

There are plenty of examples and naturally some work more effectively than others.

Peter Sellars’ use of contemporary settings for the three Da Ponte operas, updating them specifically to then-modern-day New York for example worked well overall. As did his use, with devastating effect, of Death Row imagery in his famous production of Handel’s Theodora.

More recently at the Met, I witnessed a finessed Capriccio set in 1920s France, as well as an Il Trovatore where the only real saving grace were McVicar’s Goya-inspired sets. And closer to home there has been everything from the ‘corporate re-engineering’ of ENO’s recent Simon Boccanegra – which worked with varying degrees of success scene by scene – counter-balanced by their simplistic Germanic view of Faust and their dreadful reinterpretation of Ulisse. It has to be said that when ENO get something wrong, they do so magnificently.

And naturally, Wagner’s operas lend themselves to more than their own fair share of interpretation through the lens of history. And more often than not, it’s own.

Again plenty of examples can be found. For Tristan und Isolde there is everything from the authentic Cornish setting that inspired the Met’ production and countless others, to the starker and as brutally effective settings of Loy at Covent Garden and Marthaler at Bayreuth. And again at Bayreuth, look at the recent Meistersinger which so offended the audience.

And of the The Ring cycle itself, interpretations abound aplenty. For me, LePage’s current cycle at the Met is an uncomfortable combination of the traditional overridden by his personal obsession with technology – a modern day deus ex machina gone mad. Phyllida Lloyd’s often maligned, but to me wonderful, cycle at ENO drew on contemporary events, and sometimes with telling effect. It might have offended some people, but Brunnhilde’s immolation as a suicide bomber seemed ‘so right’ at the time. As did the Rhinemaidens as pole dancers – a reference to the sleaze and greed of the Gods that they served. And if ENO ever does revive the cycle, I’ve no doubt that these images, as well as others throughout the cycle, will remain as fresh and contemporary.

The Ring, with it’s themes including greed and the abuse of power – and Parsifal for that matter with it’s theme of redemption – often give directors the opportunity to develop a narrative centred on particularly difficult, or controversial events in history. Of course the first that come to mind are productions that focus on Germany’s own early Twentieth Century legacy – from the birth of their imperialism through to Nazism. But let’s not forget Chereau’s brilliant cycle – a damning view of capitalism.

Francesca Zambello set her sights high. Arrogantly high. She aimed to create an ‘American Ring’, based on that nation’s history, that would ‘teach’ a lesson and send a ‘warning’ to the audience of the eco-disaster that their continent potentially faced.

She aimed. And missed. Four times.

Das Rheingold was set during the Gold Rush. If greed and avarice were the prime motivations for her narrative, why not the carpet-bagging era after the Civil War and the end of slavery? Or more pertinently a scene of modern day Wall Street, the birthplace of the current recession that has driven so many opera houses in the US into closure. Clearly the racial overtones of the first, and the potential insult the second might cause to people in the audience, made her choice for her.

Die Walküre leapt from the wilderness of Middle America via the boom years of the 1920s and 1930s to the Valkyrie dressed – supposedly – as Second World War fighter pilots. But in reality they more closely resembled a bevy of Amelia Earharts, alas without neither her grace nor her bravado. Weirdly, the confrontation between Siegmund and Hunding seemed to then take place beneath an abandoned section of San Francisco’s own highway. The final act, set on the most traditional of Rocks offered what should have been a subtle touch – images of dead soldiers from wars dating from the Civil War to the current conflict in Iraq – but it simply seemed contrived. Again why not in Die Walküre confront a real issue in America’s history – the current war in Iraq and the events preceding it? Or if that was too real, the Vietnam War?

And so to the trailer park for the opening of Siegfried and the hero portrayed as juvenile ‘white trash’. It didn’t work, as Jay Hunter Morris is simply a wooden actor. The second act transported us to outside what seemed to be a warehouse. Alberich as homeless man in the same vein as Wotan’s Wanderer. Again this hinted at a possible parallel with the current homelessness situation in San Francisco itself but it came to nothing apart from a few laughs from the stalls.

And Fafner’s dragon? A miniature industrial ‘machine’ of sorts – short on menace, and long on the kind of awkwardness felt by at school plays when the dragon is made out of egg boxes. ‘Could do better’. Clearly there were budgetary considerations as the final act – and the opening act of Götterdämmerung – returned us to the Rock. Only this time it had obviously not stood the ravages of time, and looked dilapidated.

The Norns opened Götterdämmerung Matrix-style. In bright green outfits and overlaid with an animated circuit-board, their rope was replaced by cable which they fixed to either side of the stage only to have it explode. Control-Alt-Delete. If only.

And then back to the Rock. Following their adolescent running around at the end of Siegfried, we return to find the hero and Brunnhilde still running around the joyless Rock. Surely they first thing they would have done would be to at least build a shack?

Zambello’s sets trundled painfully on and took us to a faceless silver and black interior. Factory spewing plumes of smoke in the background. Hagen’s own bedroom featured for his dream sequence. A nice touch was the inference that he was, in fact, having an affair with Gutrune but again Zambello took this nowhere. The hunting scene saw the return of the Rhinemaidens and a river filled with refuse that they were clearing up. At last a clear environmental message. Sadly too late.

The Immolation scheme – thankfully – was so blandly directed that it allowed us to focus on Nina Stemme. Using bags of rubbish to create the pyre again seemed contrived but was nothing compared to the ridiculous decision to leave Gutrune on stage with Brunnhilde or having Hagen murdered by the Rhinemaidens.

And connecting all the scenes throughout the cycle, Zambello used a sequence of predictable films. Shots of running through a forest, water, clouds and, of course, factories spewing out pollution. It would have been bearable apart from the fact that Zambello chose to simply rewind them when we returned to previous locations.

It was almost a relief when the curtain came down. And yes there was booing for Zambello on the final night.

So instead of taking an opportunity to do as other directors have done – revisit uncomfortable moments in a nation’s history to make the narrative of The Ring relevant to the audience – Zambello offered her audience a saccharine, shallow, unchallenging Ring that failed to achieve add up to anything.

Why? It took me a while and perhaps I am wrong. But could it be that Zambello either thought her audience would be too stupid to follow a narrative that might ask them to confront a darker side of their history? Perhaps it was a fear that the rich San Franciscan donors would reject any attempt to make them face this reality and therefore she opted form a dumbed-down, Homer-Simpson narrative for her ‘American Ring’. Or maybe this is exactly the kind of Ring that Americans want. Glossy. Shallow. And not requiring any thought at all.

It was also interesting to note that the surtitles skipped along and over the original text, and in my view, dumbed it down. And secondly the audience laughed at those very moments in Wagner’s drama when he challenges us to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves.

However, often a bad production can be negated if the quality of the performances on stage are remarkable or at least consistently strong.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case for the most part.

Undoubtedly this cycle belongs to, and was saved by, Nina Stemme. In this, her first full Ring cycle, she dominated as Brunnhilde. Her singing, musicianship and sheer stage presence outshone everyone else on stage, as well as Runnicles in the pit. From her opening Hojotoho to her final immolation, Stemme held the audience transfixed as we watched her transform from feisty warrior to woman betrayed to woman redeemer. Striding onto stage for her first appearance, she inhabited the role completely and confidently delivered a performance of the highest standard. Her voice was rich, even and clear throughout her register and she clearly annunciated each and every word of Wagner’s text. The standing ovation at the end of Götterdämmerung was so clearly deserved. I can only think that by the end of the third cycle, she will completely own this role and be heading towards the Brunnhilde firmament. On Stemme alone can be laid the success of this Ring and hopefully the audience realise the privileged of hearing her first full Ring cycle.

However there were other singers in the cast that also stood out. Anja Kampe made her San Francisco debut as an impressive Sieglinde. Having heard her in the past when her voice had a slightly brittle tone, it was good to hear that it had ripened and filled out. Hers was a convincing Sieglinde, with intelligent and nuanced singing and acting skill that brought out the character’s vulnerability.

But the most pleasant surprise was contralto Ronnita Miller as Erda & First Norn. Her deep, resonant voice was ideally suited to Erda, and her diction was incredibly clear. And similarly she stood out significantly among the three Norns. I believe that she has an incredibly bright future ahead of her and hopefully she will be heard in Europe – and hopefully the UK? – before long.

Brandon Jovanovich also made a strong impression as Siegfried. His clarion-like tenor may have tired in places – I think that has more to do with learning pace himself than anything else – but his was a truly credible warrior. He effortlessly, for the most part, rose above the orchestra and he had the character’s arrogance and impetuosity down to a tee.

Stefan Margita’s Loge was also well cast. A strong actor, his bright and light tenor shone out over the orchestra in sharp relief to the majority of his half siblings’ shortcomings.

Mark Delavan was a singularly disappointing Wotan. He had neither the heft nor the flexibility of voice required for the role. This was particularly evident in Die Walküre when he struggled to be heard above the unsympathetic conducting of Runnicles, particularly in the final Act.

Casting Siegfried is often a challenge but the casting in San Francisco was doubly disappointing with Jay Hunter Morris in Siegfried and subsequently Ian Storey in Götterdämmerung. Morris’ attempt to play Siegfried as a surly teenager failed to light the stage and he was hampered by an inability to spin the vocal lines of the role, once again above Runnicles’ band. More of a shame was Storey’s indisposition in Götterdämmerung. Clearly he marked the role in the First Act only to try and compensate in the Second and subsequently damaged his voice. A plea by the opera administration as we entered the Third Act did not bode well, but surprisingly his performance seemed stronger. Perhaps the medical assistance he received in the interval was some kind of vocal steroid. But it wasn’t enough to compensate and overall his was a weak performance. A shame as given the right circumstances, Storey could be an impressive Siegfried.

Additionally Andrea Silvestrelli may have made a strong impression as Fasolt but, despite his rich and mellifluous bass, his Hagen was woolly and unfocused. A shame.

And while the role of Gutrune is often miscast, nothing prepared me for the sharp and brittle voice of Melissa Citro. Clearly she was cast for her looks – although the cheap, two-dimensional Anna Nicole was misplaced – that her voice clearly could not match.

And finally to Runnicles and the orchestra. First and foremost, the brass were frustratingly disappointing on all four nights, but particularly in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, where they have a key role. But generally Runnicles – whom I have always rated and whose conducting I have always admired – delivered a mediocre, lacklustre set of performances. There was little attention paid to either orchestral detail or colour, some wayward speeds but most frustratingly, a lack of sensitivity to the singers on stage which all added up to a consistently bland level of orchestral playing. It took a singer of the talents of Stemme to consistently, and successfully, cut through the noise coming from the pit. Hopefully the orchestra and Runnicles will clean up their act for the remaining cycles.

So, all in all, a disappointing Ring bar Stemme. It promised so much and delivered almost nothing. Zambello aspired to deliver a contemporary narrative but instead produced something that was either ill-thought out and conceived, or simply baulked at confronting some of America’s real demons. Runnicles was pallid and unresponsive in the pit. And Stemme was less than ably supported by the vast majority of her colleagues on stage.

At a time when opera companies throughout the US are scrabbling to survive it’s frustrating to see a major house waste such an unique opportunity. But sadly I think that this Ring will run and run in the city of San Francisco.

Because it made the audience laugh.

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